As far as I'm concerned, outside of PBS and BBC, the only place you'll find solid made for TV documentaries is the National Geographic Channel. TLC gives us giant families and obesity for shock value, and Discovery Channel/Discovery Health keep recycling the same topics over and over, sometimes even using the same footage for multiple specials. NatGeo at least tries to bring us something new each time.
But what is the ultimate goal of these documentaries? One would hope the motive is both capturing an interesting topic for research purposes and educating a wider spectrum of the potential audience on lesser known issues. Some of these new medical oddity documentaries lead me to believe otherwise.
Let's use three of NatGeo's latest specials as a model for this conundrum. It is only by coincidence that all three documentaries feature Indian subjects: The Girl Who Cries Blood, The World's Smallest Girl, and The Girl with Eight Limbs. I had intended to include a documentary on Yau Defen, the world's tallest woman, in place of The Girl with Eight Limbs but could not locate the information I needed to proceed.
There is a distinct similarity in the subjects choosen for these documentaries on NatGeo. All of the subjects are examples of rare, or possibly unknown, medical conditions. The Girl Who Cries Blood, Twinkle, experiences random bursts of bleeding that occur without a wound. The World's Smallest Girl, Jyoti, is believed to have one of the rarest forms of dwarfism, leaving her with extremely fragile bones that fracture in unexpected ways. The Girl with Eight Limbs, Lakshmi, was born with a dangerous parasitic twin, leaving her with four arms and four legs.
Obviously, documentaries made for television have to possess the potential to pull in ratings to justify a television network producing them. On a surface level, subjects like Twinkle, Jyoti, and Lakshmi are choosen solely because they have conditions that can be viewed as shocking. Imagine your reaction to hearing about a special following around a girl who bleeds from her eyeballs. One could even argue there is an element of morbid sideshow attraction, with medical oddity documentaries somehow working to replace in person attractions showcasing these same kinds of conditions a century ago at the sideshow.
Unlike some other television networks, I do not get the sense that NatGeo is attempting to exploit and profit from these subjects. The subjects are chosen to arouse interest and are dealt with in an intelligent manner. We're not talking about other networks that will cater a gigantic meal at a morbidly obese person's house to get the shock footage; we're talking about refined documentary filmmaking.
Where does that leave any question of intentions?
The NatGeo documentaries in this vein all follow a formula with only a few variables. The subject is shown in their home experiencing life on a day to day basis as the special begins. They then visit their local options for treatment and express their interest in having a big time American doctor help the subject. The American doctor offers free evaluation for the sake of research and benevolence, then gives the patient the choice of whether or not to accept the treatment.
This is where the variables kick in. Lakshmi's special is a very positive, triumph over adversity story because her family agrees to medical treatment. Everything is hopeful and beneficial to the family. Lakshmi is portrayed as a brave hero and her family as an inspiring case of dedication to the best treatment medicine can provide.
However, Twinkle and her mother are villified because Twinkle does not want to be locked up for isolated observation so the doctor can see when the bleeding begins. They're repeatedly called liars throughout the special and the doctor mentions in passing that Twinkle might be the first documented case of a new medical condition, but because she didn't play ball he'll just say she's Münchausen syndrome. In other words, the medical diagnosis emphasized as accurate is Twinkle is a compulsive liar and attention whore who manipulates everyone by somehow acquiring her own blood and strategically placing it in her eyeballs. Classy. That's obviously not a wholly accurate portrayal of Münchausen syndrome, though that is the intended reaction to the documentary.
Jyoti's special also casts villains, this time the girl's parents. The way the special puts it, Jyoti's parents are clearly backwoods idiots who would rather believe in magic and fairy dust then actually heal their child. The evidence? When Jyoti's veins are incapable of producing a 15 mL blood sample upon thorough aggressive pumping above the needle on the arm and Jyoti is clearly in pain, the family decides that if she cannot endure a blood test at this time, she most likely cannot cope with surgery. They visit a traditional Indian healer and hope for the best. The whole time, the doctors are two steps shy of spinning a pointed finger round their ears and crying "cuckoo."
So what do these three specials show as a motivation for the NatGeo documentaries? It's pretty clear that there is a strong bias towards modern Western medicine over traditional healing methods. Anytime someone tries that, there's a talking head doctor or voiceover suggesting the futility of any treatment not carried out in a hospital. There's also a greater narrative motivation, attempting to cast normal people in exceptional circumstances in traditional roles of Western film. Lakshmi and her family triumph over great adversity and are heroes for enduring the whole ideal. Twinkle and her mother are conspirators, trying to garner attention by any means necessary. And Jyoti is a victim of circumstance, being forced to make the wrong decision by ignorant parents.
Is there more nuance than I prescribed here? Of course. These are generalizations based off of my own reaction to the tone and editing of these documentaries. But I still believe them to be valid interpretations of the specials.